"Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love" was French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand's perfect cup of coffee. And ours too. Fortunately, that black, hot, pure, sweet cup of coffee requires only the right tool, great beans, water, and the willingness to try a new method or two. We rounded up five ways to make that perfect brew, with handy how-to videos for each method.
First, though, a few preliminary tips.
Generally, to brew a great cup of coffee, your goal is to place coffee grounds in just the right amount of water for just the right amount of time in order to extract the coffee's flavors without its bitterness. Use filtered water and the best whole beans you can buy. "You ideally want to be using coffee within two weeks of its roast date, and hook yourself up with a regular resupply. Almost nothing you'll find at the supermarket will be fresh enough to be worth your time," roaster and all-around "well-known coffee guy" Tony Konecny says, adding, "Don't refrigerate or freeze beans." Instead, store beans in an airtight container.
Next, invest in a high quality burr coffee grinder (budget-friendly recommendations include the Capresso Infinity and Baratza Maestro). Similar to cutting your vegetables the same size so they will cook evenly, coffee particles must be approximately the same size for an even extraction; lesser quality grinders will spit out uneven grinds. According to Handsome Coffee Roaster co-founder Michael Phillips, blade grinders "produce such an inconsistent grind that it will be impossible to get a proper extraction. You're going to both over-extract and under-extract the coffee." Konecny reminds us to clean the grinder regularly, as "even a little bit of grinder grime can spoil an otherwise good cup."
Brewing the coffee requires more attention than simply pushing a button on a machine, and this is the fun part. It also is what Phillips calls the "science-y" aspect of coffee: these manual methods have suggested ratios of coffee to water, as well as optimal brew times. Following these guidelines, then tweaking them to taste, will positively affect the quality of the brew. A scale for precise measurements is helpful, though Phillips and Cognoscenti Coffee's Yeekai Lim agree that you may measure by volume without compromising much quality. Two tablespoons of ground coffee per six ounces of just-off-the-boil water is the general rule of thumb. Regardless of your method, Konecny advises that you "measure for repeatability ... you should have a working baseline to be able to duplicate or make small adjustments to your next brew."
After doing all of the above, your coffee should taste damn good. Even black. If it doesn't taste quite right, Phillips, Konecny, and Lim have helpful tips. If the coffee is thin, sour, and tea-like, you've under-extracted: you should brew longer and/or use a finer grind. If the coffee is thick, ashy, bitter and astringent, then you've over-extracted and should reduce the brew time and/or try a coarser grind. Konecny adds that because coffee "changes and evolves from the time it comes out of the roaster", your settings may change as you go through the bag.
And, finally, perhaps the most valuable tidbit, courtesy Phillips: "You have to care."
On to the methods:
5. Vietnamese phin. Making Vietnamese coffee is exceedingly simple: finely ground French roast coffee slowly filters into a cup pre-filled with condensed milk, then mixed. Note that while it takes time for the coffee to drip-drip-drip from the phin into the cup, it shouldn't be excruciatingly slow. If it's taking too long, try a coarser grind. Conversely, if the coffee filters quickly, use a finer grind. When all is done, the coffee will be sweet and very, very strong. This is by far the cheapest tool on this list: the phin and a can of condensed milk will set you back only a few bucks at an Asian grocery store.
4. French press. Few breakfast nooks are complete without a French press, with good reason. Here, you only have to be mindful of only two factors: the grind (coarse) and immersion time (three to four minutes). To minimize the coffee sludge that somehow always ends up in your cup, try skimming off as much of the grounds as you can before plunging the filter.
3. Pour-over cone. Oliver Strand suggested that pour-over cones may become "the fondue sets of our day," briefly used then largely neglected and left to collect dust on the least accessible shelf in our kitchens. Hopefully, he will be proven wrong. The preferred brewing method for Tony Konecny and specialty coffee shops across the city, this process of steadily pouring water over grounds results in an even extraction and brings out flavors otherwise masked in a French press. The Hario V60 pour-over cone is popular and can be found at most specialty coffee shops around the city, including Intelligentsia. Hario's Buono kettle is convenient but expensive; until you commit to the pour-over, a tea kettle and steady hands will do.
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2. Aeropress. The syringe-shaped Aeropress uses air pressure to rapidly extract flavor from the coffee; after the very short one-minute brew time, the coffee is plunged through a microfilter. Michael Phillips likes the Aeropress for its portability: "It's built like a tank. You can throw it in your bag, and it'll make a brew that stands up to anything else." The Aeropress is about $30 and available at a few local coffee shops, including Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa in Culver City.
1. Clever dripper. The Clever dripper cleverly combines the French press with the pour-over cone. With a stopper at the bottom to prevent coffee from immediately draining (as it would in a pour-over), you can brew the coffee as long as you would like. When you do drain, the cup is sediment-free. Phillips is a big fan of the Clever: "It removes the need to secure a pouring technique, allows you to use more forgiving grind settings due to fact that it's a full immersion, and you can precisely control the coffee's contact time." The Clever is about $20 and available at Demitasse in Little Tokyo and Broome St. General Store in Silver Lake.